Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

If love is not a scarcity

We tell each other stories in contemporary white, western culture about love as a big, dramatic event. We are supposed to fall in love with one person, for the rest of our lives, and live happily ever after. It puts a lot of pressure on a relationship.

Desire can strike us like lightning, kicking off some intense body chemistry reactions that, for a few weeks, may give us all those feelings of drama and foreverness. This chemistry wears off, and sometimes leaves very little of use or value in its wake. Finding that it wasn’t the one big true love of our lives, we feel sad and move on. We have to stop loving one person to move on and have the next go at the love affair that will be the big one.

Imagine what would happen if we did not treat love as a rare and scarce commodity. Imagine how it would be if we considered it pretty normal for people to love other people. If it was normal to love lots of people. Imagine if to love one person, you didn’t have to first stop loving someone else.

Rather than looking for the movie style high octane life shattering romance, we’d maybe have different priorities. We might want to get into relationships with people we like – so many straight relationships seem like battlegrounds, but it need not be that way. We might get into relationships with people because we have similar tastes and interests, and get along well and suit each other – which is essential if you’re trying to live with someone. We might feel ok about having differently shaped relationships with different people who we love.

If we choose how to manifest love, it becomes an active process. Not something that happens to us, where we are passive recipients, powerless to resist. What if love is what we choose and what we do? Not some accident of the universe, but something we make, with our choices and actions?

It is pretty unreasonable to ask one person to be all the things in your life. Not everyone is good at all the things. Not everyone wants to do all the same things. Sometimes it’s useful to have a fresh perspective. If we put down the idea of the one big dramatic love, we might have a bit more room for the modest but very meaningful loves that enrich a life. It might be easier to get along in relationships if we didn’t have to try and be all the things for each other all of the time.

And then, the big love story arc tells us that we should be willing to die for love, Romeo and Juliet style. We should be willing to throw away anything, and everyone, for the prize of that once in a lifetime romance. We should be willing to go cold, hungry, barefoot if it means we can be together. This is utter shit, and does not make for a long term, viable relationship. Sacrificing everything for love puts unbearable pressure on people and does none of us any good. The room to be a bit more pragmatic is valuable indeed.

If love wasn’t viewed as a rare commodity, but as a normal part of how we interact with people, how much else would change?

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Peace, love, light and backstabbing

Let me start by being clear that I take no issue with anyone who is drawn towards peace, love or light. These are all good things. Looking back, I see that many of the people I’ve really struggled with have been all about presenting with peace, love and light. The trouble with this approach is that it doesn’t give you any space to deal with difficult feelings or conflicts. What happens then seems to come out sidewise.

If you can be honestly cross, upset, frustrated, envious or anything else that isn’t lovely, then you can deal with life. It may be tempting to want to be some kind of higher, enlightened being that feels none of those ‘negative’ emotions, but that’s not realistic. Also, those emotions are there for a reason. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of them. They are there to protect us and help us learn. Try and suppress those feelings, and you won’t be a better person, you’ll be a person with a problem shadow side whose repressed aspects keep trying to pop out.

It is, without a doubt, better to acknowledge what you’re feeling, however awkward it is, and then deal with it from there. Ignoring the difficult stuff just builds you a bigger problem.

If you buy into the idea that you are, and have to be, an utterly lovely person, you put enormous pressure on yourself. If that slips for even a moment, you have to justify the slip. You may be tempted to figure out how it’s all someone else’s fault – so that you don’t have to own it or feel responsible. This is how we get from peace, love and light, to backstabbing.

If you can’t own your own feelings and have to make someone else responsible for them, of course you give away power. You make it harder to change. You distort your own reality so that your anger is their anger, your resentment is their unfairness. Your jealousy is their manipulative and power hungry behaviour. If you’ve done a good job of your peace-love-light image, the people around you may support you in this rather than help you recognise what’s going on, and for the longer term, that just helps you dig yourself into a deeper hole.

With the benefit of distance, it’s a pretty horrible thing to have seen a person do to themselves.

Looking back, I’ve taken some emotional bruises from people who’ve acted this way. But, I learned and adapted and moved away from those interactions. I was able to acknowledge and deal with my own feelings about those situations. I can feel sad, or cross, or angry, or bitter or resentful without compromising my sense of self, and that’s a great help to me. I can recognise when I’ve been crap, inadequate, or just plain wrong. I’m able to have a realistic relationship with my own experiences. All of the good relationships I have allow me this.

I don’t know what happened to the people who got angry with me but couldn’t own what was going on for them. It’s been easy to let them go and step away. I know from periods in my life where I’ve not been free to express and deal with my own feelings (pain, fear, grief, shock) that it is really expensive. If you can’t live your truth, everything is distorted around that and it becomes exhausting. If they’re lucky, my absence freed them from that, at least with regards to me.

The thing about peace, love and light is that you can only really make them work if you’re also prepared to deal with conflict, loathing and darkness, because nothing exists in perfect isolation from everything else and everything casts a shadow sooner or later.


Depression and self esteem

For some years now I’ve watched a number of friends who suffer from depression hit burnout on a fairly regular basis. I used to burnout regularly too. Sometimes it’s easier to think about what’s going on when looking at someone else’s patterns rather than your own.

Exhaustion can cause depression and will always make it worse. Avoiding this is a process of self care in which you do the pretty obvious thing of dealing properly with your own needs on a day to day basis. However, for people with low self esteem, this doesn’t work in the same way. If you feel that your needs don’t matter, it’s really hard to put them first. If you feel that putting your own needs first would turn you into a terrible, selfish monster, then running yourself into the ground can feel like the responsible choice. In terms of your mental health, it might be less terrifying than trying to be nice to yourself.

People don’t develop poor self esteem all by themselves. I think most of us learn it, or at the very least get it reinforced. And then when you burn out and people tell you off for not taking proper care of yourself, that doesn’t help. I had a lot of rounds of well meaning people pointing out that I could hardly look after anyone else if I wasn’t in good shape, but for a long time that wasn’t something I could work with, only feel as another form of failure.

Low self esteem will keep you feeling like a failure. Feeling like a failure will make you anxious and depressed. You keep running as hard as you can, doing as much as you can and burning out and falling over, and the question to ask is why? Why does that seem like a good idea? It is a hard question to ask and the answers may be tough.

If you don’t feel entitled to exist, then you may spend your whole life trying to make up for being here. Trying to justify your existence, or do something good enough that you can feel entitled to be just like a real person. However, anxiety and depression and burnout won’t raise your self esteem. Not meeting your own basic needs actually adds to low self esteem and keeps you locked in cycles of burnout, effort and despair. These are hard cycles to break. If looking after yourself leads to anxiety about being awful in some way, it’s really hard to look after yourself.

I’ve made a lot of progress on this in recent years, but not by tackling it head on. I’ve done a lot of thinking about how to honour nature in my own body. If Druidry is honouring nature, then treating my mammal body the way I would any other mammal body is something I can get to grips with. Treating my fragility as nature manifesting, as the limitations of my physical self, and the natural realities of my existence has helped me cope with it better.

I’ve also learned that if I am complicit in something unethical, then I support and enable unethical behaviour. I need to model the ways of being that I want to see in the world. There are a number of lovely younger women in my life and I don’t want to show them how to trash yourself and burn out. I want to show them how to live well and take good care of themselves, and to do that, I have to embody it.

It is easier to think about how things impact on other people. If you have low self esteem, it may be easier to do things for other people than it is to do things for yourself. Setting a good example is also something you can do for the people around you. Living in the way you would like the people you care for to live, can be a way of breaking out of the awful cycles that low self esteem can otherwise create.


After the triggering

People who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (not all of whom will have a diagnosis because mental health resources are scarce) experience triggering. Triggering is a process that takes you back into experiences of trauma. It’s very hard, through to impossible to get the resurgence of memory under control. It can mean anything from hours of revisiting terrible memories, unable to stop the flow, through to re-experiencing the trauma as though you are back in that situation and reliving it.

People become traumatised when they experience terrible things – violence, cruelty, assault, psychological torment… and when that becomes normal. A person can experience a terrible one off thing and not take massive psychological damage if it doesn’t then become part of their sense of how the world works. However, if you spend time in a literal or metaphorical war zone, it becomes your reality, and at some level it’s hard to feel safe after that, and so easy to go back there.

Traumatised people respond dramatically to things other people may think are no big deal. This can make it very confusing to deal with from the outside, because from the outside, it doesn’t look like a reasonable pattern of cause and effect. This can lead to treating the trauma survivor as though they are a drama queen, or totally unreasonable, or being unfair.

I have on enough occasions dealt with people who weren’t going to walk on eggshells around me and who weren’t going to be careful about not triggering me and didn’t see why they should have to. This, for me, is now a deal-breaker in a relationship of any shape. If someone doesn’t value me enough to at least try not to trigger me, it’s not a place I can afford to stay.

When a person doesn’t make sense, it can be hard to find empathy, or to work with them. It is easy to dismiss what seems illogical or out of all proportion.

After someone has been triggered, things can go one of two ways:

One: in the aftermath of the triggering they may learn that it was a reasonable response. They aren’t safe. They can’t trust the people around them. What looked ominous was indeed a real threat, and they were right to respond as they did. The normalising of the trauma continues. They learn that what they fear, is true.

Two: they learn that it was a mistake, and that the people around them care and want to fix things and keep them safe and help them feel better. The sense that traumatic experiences are normal and to be expected diminishes a little, and the world becomes a slightly better place.

The difference in these situations is the behaviour of the person who caused the triggering once it’s evident that there’s a problem. Do they add to it, or do they try to sort things out? Do they blame, shame, mock and belittle the victim, or do they encourage them and help them get back on their feet? Do they take careful note of the problem in the hopes they can make sure it never happens again, or do they call the victim a snowflake?

We have so much power over each other. So much potential for good and for harm. So often it comes down to whether we are willing and able to care about things that may at first make no sense to us.

 


When it isn’t drama

For the person in crisis or recovering from trauma, the accusation of being a drama queen is an experience of being kicked when you’re down. From the outside, it can be hard to see what you’re dealing with – especially where old wounds, hidden traumas and invisible triggers are concerned. That it would not be a crisis for you is not a measure of a thing. Context can also play a big part, with poverty, ill health and other such problems turning what might be mole hills for the well resourced, into impossible mountains.

How do you tell what to do when you can’t tell what’s really going on?

I think the first question to ask is about your own resources. If you have time, energy and comfort, if you are well resourced then you can certainly afford to spend some time acting with sympathy in response to a problem. If you aren’t well enough resourced to help much, you have to take those limits into account.

The person who is in crisis is unlikely to try and burden you further if it looks like you too cannot cope. People in crisis know about being pushed towards the edge. However, people interested in being centre stage and wanting there to be a drama that revolves around them are much more likely to demand your help even if you’ve been clear that you can’t do much.

Poverty, debt and illness can lead you into vicious circles and downward spirals and create one crisis after another. Frequency of crisis is not therefore a sign that someone is definitely doing drama. However, people who don’t enjoy drama are often awkward and embarrassed about asking for help. They are more likely also to feel responsible for what’s happened to them even if it isn’t in any way their fault. Drama enthusiasts, on the other hand, seldom feel responsible even when they are.

People in crisis do what they can to get out of the crisis. They may do it badly, they may make bad choices along the way, or be too proud to get help when they could have done, and that doesn’t always look great from the outside, but it isn’t drama. People who like drama can be remarkably good at not finding solutions or getting things fixed and keeping things in drama mode for far longer than necessary. They also tend to want the solutions to come from somewhere other than themselves. The desire for attention is more important than the desire to get things sorted out.

Of course often it isn’t this binary. Drama llamas can have real crises. People dealing with relentless, grinding challenges can become very hungry for care and attention in a way that also blurs the edges. There’s also the factor that the would-be helper isn’t neutral in all of this. If you could help and don’t want to, that doesn’t make the person asking for help a drama queen. If the problems aren’t solvable – as with chronic illness – it doesn’t mean the person is less deserving of what help can be given. If you resent the attention someone else is getting for being in crisis, that might be about you, and not them at all.


Finding energy

Experiencing a lack of energy can become a problem for all kinds of reasons, without those reasons being obvious. I find it pays to start with the physical considerations and work from there when trying to deal with this.  It isn’t always possible to figure out the cause and deal with it directly, but these sorts of things are always worth checking and tend to help.

Getting more rest and more sleep can help a lot, even if the problem isn’t a lack of them. Emotional and mental processing can take time and energy, so gentle down-time can help fix a number of things that may be exhausting you.

Good food, being properly hydrated and being at the right temperature for you, are all really helpful things. If I’m low, I’m more likely to feel cold and will benefit from warming up. Washing may be restorative.

Sometimes it helps to stimulate yourself with some moderate activity. I suffer poor circulation and I definitely benefit, some days, from being more active rather than less. It’s a case of determining whether it will benefit you. Moving the blood around can encourage healing. Sometimes a bit of adrenaline is the right answer.

If my brain is tired then I try to do things that are mentally restful – here physical activity can be a great help, especially anything you can do at a gentle pace. I find crafting helpful, but reading isn’t reliably good when I’m brain-tired. Also be wary of mind numbing responses – shite TV, alcohol and the like can feel like a relief at the time but they aren’t giving you anything restorative. Escapism is fine, but make sure it feeds you.

I can feel low when I’m under-stimulated mentally. In which case, a creative challenge, exposure to creative work, or something I can get my teeth into is the answer. Boredom can also suck away energy, and generate apathy, so needs watching for – if you’re dealing with yourself as though you are exhausted when really you’re just devoid of enthusiasm, you can end up doing all the wrong things and making yourself feel worse.

Low emotional states can be protective. They can be a response to overload and be a way of stepping back from more than you can bear. The answer to a loss of emotional energy is seldom to be found in pushing against that. Often the best answer to look at your simplest and most physical needs and take care of those, and wait for your feelings to catch up.

Sometimes there’s a degree of trial and error in finding out what you need to change in order to improve your energy levels on any given occasion. There’s no universal right answer here, and what you need may vary from one occasion to another. Even if you can’t pull yourself up, taking care of your most basic needs will give you the best possible resources to help you cope. Take it gently. Be patient with yourself. Don’t imagine you should be other than you are, and don’t feel if you can’t find a reason, there isn’t one. Humans are complicated things, and perfect self awareness in times of difficulty is ambitious to say the least.


Toxic things

Nature is full of toxic things. Some of them will kill any of us, some will only make a few of us sick. Sometimes those same toxic things can be used for healing by those who know what they’re doing. The poisonous foxglove gives us the medicinal digitalis.

For some people, bee stings are unpleasant, while for others they can prove fatal. Even plants that many people find beneficial – like clove and garlic, can turn out to be toxic to some of us. I have terrible trouble with cloves. At the same time, I have a far lower reaction to stinging nettles than is normal.

What proves indigestible for one person, may be the best thing imaginable for another. What drives one body into violent allergic reaction may heal and nurture another body.

I think sometimes this is true with people, as well. Some people are toxic to anyone they encounter. Some people produce reactions in a few, and not in everyone. Some of the people in our lives come like bee stings, and a lot depends on whether we’re fatally allergic to that. Some people may contain nuts…

As with the rest of the poisonous natural world, sometimes toxicity in other people can act as a healing catalyst. Not that this necessarily lets them off the hook. Sometimes what we find toxic in others has more to do with what’s going on inside us in the first place than ever it does with them. But, just as I have to avoid cloves for my own wellbeing, there are also people it’s better if I don’t engage with.

We need to know what we find toxic, for our bodies and for our emotional lives. We won’t all find the same things affect us in the same ways. How you react is entirely yours to own and be informed by. You shouldn’t feel any more obliged to deal with a person who makes you uncomfortable than you would feel obliged to eat a food that does ghastly things to your insides. However, it’s always important to remember that your personal reaction may not be a measure of the thing as a whole. My allergy to cloves doesn’t make cloves a toxic, dangerous food that should be banned. My aversion to some people doesn’t make them terrible people, either.

However, my aversion to air pollution for example, is very different. None of us do well with polluted air. None of us do well with abusive people, or unsolicited physical violence. Some kinds of toxicity are limited and personal. Some kinds of toxicity aren’t good in any context or useful by any measure. If we can glean some good from a situation, it doesn’t make it any less toxic, it’s just a measure of our own determination to make something better.


Wonky realities and unthinkable thoughts

A radical change in thinking is not something we can always do in a conscious way. If, for example, your reality is broken in some way, the process of recognising this and changing it might be impossible with your conscious mind. Much of the work may be done when asleep, and it can surface in dreams.

We invest a lot in our version of reality. It’s how we navigate and what we base our decisions on. However, our beliefs can turn out to be wrong. We may have trusted the wrong people, we may have invested in something that demonstrably doesn’t work. When this happens, most of us are not quick to respond to new evidence. We hang on to the old belief even as evidence stacks up to refute it. I think we do this because we’ve invested something of ourselves in that belief, and it is our sense of self that would have to change to accommodate having been wrong.

If you carry on doing something that doesn’t work, of course you just dig yourself in deeper. The debt from the unsustainable lifestyle gets bigger. The relationship gets ever more dysfunctional. Your health deteriorates. The less you square up to a problem, the bigger it gets. What might have been manageable when it first became evident, becomes bigger and more difficult. Admitting not only to the mistake, but the consequences of clinging to the mistake becomes ever more costly. So you tell yourself that you can have the thing you’ve been told explicitly isn’t possible. And you keep digging the hole.

I’ve been here.

While I was clinging to a reality that didn’t work, my dreams reduced down to a handful of anxiety stories. Some part of my brain knew perfectly well that I was in a lot of trouble, and was trying to get in touch with the rest of my brain. I didn’t listen, for years. I couldn’t face knowing. I bent what reality I had around the broken bits to try and make it work until everything was distorted and dysfunctional. In the end, I got very ill, and change happened anyway and I had no choice but to deal with how broken my reality had become. At that point, I still couldn’t do much of it consciously.

Anyone practicing spiritual disciplines may feel that they are self aware and in control of their mind. You can do a lot of work to explore your unconscious urges and motivations, and still not be able to recognise that some part of your reality is broken. It is easy to assume that you have the self awareness not to fall into this kind of trap. That you’re too good, too clever, too engaged to be living inside an illusion. In practice, you just have the tool set to make a more detailed and carefully justified illusion. If there’s something you don’t want to consciously look at, no amount of being enlightened will give you the self honesty to easily tackle it.

This is because self honesty isn’t the key issue here. It’s how invested we are in how we think things work. It is possible to hold ideas lightly and feel easy about changing them. If someone came along with a new take on gravity or the nature of atoms, I could go along with that comfortably enough. If something comes along that impacts on a key relationship in my life, I might ignore the evidence rather than face it, because I may be too invested to be able to deal with what’s happening. Would I sacrifice that level of attachment for a more dispassionate view? No. Not being that invested comes at a cost as well. Investment itself is a form of vulnerability, but without that kind of vulnerability everything can only ever be superficial.


How to experience love

Most people want to be loved. However, feeling loved is not entirely straightforward, because of course we can’t in the normal scheme of things feel an emotion someone else has about us. We can experience their care, warmth or passion and infer from what they do something of how they feel, but we only have as much information as we have a capacity to love.

It annoys me immensely that there are so many people out there touting the idea that to experience love, you have to love yourself. It simply isn’t true. I say this with the confidence of someone who has felt self hatred while being able to deeply love other people. It is the ability to love that gives us the experience of love. What we primarily feel of love, is our own love for others. It is also the basis from which we can infer what others may feel in turn.

If you don’t feel love, you don’t have that warmth and joy permeating you in response to something else. Feeling blissful, blessed, enriched by the experience of the other, comes from inside us. The easiest way to feel love, is to love.

Every now and then, I run into someone who finds the idea of love threatening. There’s a recurring theme of hearing the word as pressure or demand. The idea that ‘I love you’ reduces, demeans or otherwise harms a person is something I’ve repeatedly been confused by. The conclusion I’ve come to is that these are people who do not experience love as I do. Whatever happens when they consider that they love someone, has a very different shape. Or their experience of what happens when someone else loves them does.

If what we experience is a mix of desire, and fear of losing a person, then love can indeed be threatening. If love is a bartering tool – if ‘I love you’ means you have to do something for me; that would make people weird about it. If there only seems to be a finite amount of love in your heart that you have to ration out carefully and someone extra demands a piece by saying ‘I love you,’ that might be hard.

I’ve noticed along the way that people who are warm, affectionate, open hearted and generous don’t tend to manifest this fear. They don’t tend to resent expressions of fondness and affection. People who consider themselves unloveable can be highly resistant to being loved – perhaps in part because they have a story to maintain. People who have stories about love scarcity are much the same.

I experience a great deal of love primarily because I feel a great deal of love – and not just for people. If I can see in what someone else does something that mirrors how I love, I can appreciate it. It is not possible, from the outside, to pour love into a person who doesn’t feel love. There is nothing that can be done by loving that will plug up the feeling of not being loved that comes from not being able to love. I’ve dealt with people who never felt loved, who always needed more proof, more demonstrations, more… more… because I realise now they were looking outside for love to come to them. There was a feeling they craved – and perhaps had once in the form of unconditional parental love – and they crave something to fill them up. But no one else can give you that. You can only find it by feeling.


Grief and love

Grief is the painful but necessary process of dealing with dramatic changes around love. If that which we have loved is gone, there’s a process to go through responding to that. Either we choose to let the love go as well and move on, or we learn how to carry it. We adjust to loving that which is no longer present in our lives. I’ve always felt strongly that no one should be obliged to get over a loss of someone or something they truly loved.

Learning how to carry the grief of loss is not at all like letting go. It is a process of making that love a part of you, no longer dependent on anything exterior to you. To accept the loss, and refuse to let go of the love. To decide that the love you have is bigger than death, bigger than distance, or destruction. I think it’s a good choice to keep what you loved alive by continuing to love when it is no longer there to directly inspire that love.

Sometimes grief takes another form and of the two, I find this one harder to deal with. If we are betrayed by someone we love. If what we loved turns out to be lies and illusion, if we have been manipulated, let down, led astray. If our love has been accepted only to control us and put us on a leash… And there comes a point where this is visible. The object of our love may be right in front of us, just the same as always. What dies here is our capacity for love. The grief that follows the death of love is different from the grief that follows the death of a loved something or someone.

It may be that the illusions were of our own making. We put our faith and trust in an idea we had, and reality can’t bear it out. That hurts, and is likely to bring a lot of soul searching and distress. Unpicking and understanding the illusion after it has been revealed is tough work. Dealing with the memory of love for something unfeasible can be painful, humiliating. It can be waded through, and it is better to be free of such illusions even if the short term cost of dealing with them is really high.

It may be that we have been deliberately misled and betrayed. The death of love in this way is an entirely human issue. A creature won’t do this to us, nor will a landscape, a house, a musical instrument. They are what we are, and if we love such things for what they are they will never deliberately let us down. People are a whole other issue. Whether we love enough to endure betrayal is something you only find out on a case by case basis. Sometimes it may be a good and noble thing to keep loving in the face of terrible let-downs. Sometimes it may be the bars on your prison that keeps you locked in something abusive. Sometimes it is better if love dies, and you live.

Most spiritual traditions uphold the idea that love is good, and ideal and what we should be working with. There’s not much practical advice out there as to what to do to stay sane and functional in face of serious betrayals of trust. We have plenty of cultural information around us about dealing with the loss of what we’ve loved, but precious little to help a person navigate around the death of love itself. We tell each other that love should be eternal and unconditional, and we don’t tell each other what to do when we find we really can’t deliver on that.

As a consequence, the death of love can feel like a personal failing. Having been monumentally betrayed, the victim of this may be left thinking that they should still be able to love and give and feel compassion for the person hurting and harming them. It may seem that the onus is on them to be bigger, kinder, more generous. I know from experience that if you have what it takes to keep loving someone who abuses that love, they will just keep cutting you down and making you smaller and less able to function. Sometimes the death of love will save your life in a really literal way.